Inside Borland's decision to leave

BySteve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada ESPN logo
Thursday, April 2, 2015

BERKELEY, Calif. -- A little over a week ago, Chris Borland woke up in a Guadalajara, Mexico, hotel room to the shocking news that Patrick Willis, his fellow San Francisco 49ers linebacker, had retired at age 30.

Borland paced the room, his head in his hands. He knew that more bad news was on the way for the 49ers, and, as Willis' heir apparent, he'd be the source of it.

"It hurt to know that I was going to let the fans and the team down," said Borland, who was in Mexico teaching youth football. "But I just had to live my life."

Borland, one of the NFL's top rookies this past season, dropped his own bombshell Monday night, telling "Outside the Lines" that he is retiring at age 24 because of concerns about the long-term impact of football-related head trauma. His decision left a gaping hole in the middle of the Niners' defense and refocused attention on the brutal physical toll of America's most popular sport.

After the surreal experience of watching his own retirement play out on "SportsCenter" on Monday night, Borland responded to an avalanche of calls and texts and took a walk around the block to catch his breath and speak with his father in Ohio. In a series of detailed, exclusive conversations with "Outside the Lines" over the next day, he laid out the evolution of his decision, which has stoked the national conversation about the risks of playing football.

Borland described the "euphoric high" he gets from playing in the NFL juxtaposed against the sobering realization that his own "violent style" might ultimately leave him brain-damaged or worse. After suffering an apparent concussion during training camp last year, he embarked on a season-long education that included extensive reading and consultations with neuroscientists and former players, including longtime critics of the NFL.

Borland eventually walked away from what he described as his NFL dream, a rising star who now may have to return three-quarters of his $617,436 signing bonus and forfeit most of a four-year, nearly $3 million contract. He said it ultimately was not a difficult decision.

"I mean, if it could potentially kill you -- I know that's a drastic way to put it, but it is a possibility -- that really puts it in perspective to me," he said. "To me, it just wasn't what I wanted to do.

"I can relate from the outside looking in that it wouldn't make sense to a lot of people, and I've had close friends who have said, 'Well, why don't you just play one more year, it's a lot more money, you probably won't get hurt.' I just don't want to get in a situation where I'm negotiating my health for money. Who knows how many hits is too many?"

One former player whom Borland consulted was David Meggyesy, a former St. Louis Cardinals linebacker and sports activist who wrote a scathing 1970 memoir about life in the NFL. Meggyesy said Borland informed him about a month ago that he probably would retire because of health concerns. Meggyesy said he supported the decision and told Borland it could send a larger message.

"I just told him that depending on how you do it, you could do a lot of good by getting people, especially parents of young kids, to get them to think about, 'Should I let my kid play football?'"

Borland told "Outside the Lines" he wasn't "eager to wave the banner, or be a poster child for anything, but inevitably this action makes a pretty profound statement." Asked what that statement is, he replied: "That health is more important than a career in football."

Borland grew up in Kettering, Ohio, near Dayton, the sixth of seven children. Lightly recruited out of high school, he became an All-American linebacker at Wisconsin and was selected by the 49ers in the third round last year.

Borland said he became increasingly aware of the concussion issue while still in college, particularly the plight of Mike Webster, the legendary Wisconsin and Pittsburgh Steelers center who, after his battle with mental health problems and death in 2002, became the first player to be diagnosed with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.CTE has since been discovered in dozens of deceased NFL players.

"It wasn't like an everyday thought," Borland said. "I wanted to fulfill my dream of playing in the NFL. I didn't think I was in grave danger. I couldn't turn down what I had worked nine years to achieve."

That changed during last year's preseason, he said. During a practice, Borland, who was listed at 5-foot-11, 248 pounds, but looks smaller, stepped up to stuff a running play and ran into 6-foot-4, 293-pound fullback Will Tukuafu. "I just think I got the crown of my head on Will's face mask," Borland said. The sensation, he said, was like "you're in a fog, like you're not quite yourself."

Borland played through the apparent concussion, but he was profoundly affected. "That play was the realization of what could happen if I did this for a long time."

That week, Borland wrote a letter to his parents, explaining that he suspected his NFL career would be brief and "health was the main reason." Borland hand-delivered the letter after a preseason game against Houston, a game in which he returned an interception for a touchdown.

Borland's father, Jeff, a Dayton financial planner, said his first reaction to the letter -- and his son's retirement -- was "relieved. That there is a date and time when the physical punishment comes to end. During the course of a 16-game season, everybody in the end is injured. It's almost as if pieces just get broken off, and you give up pieces or an appendage every year.

"The second thing is proud, that he had -- for so many reasons -- the courage and the foresight at 24 to make a decision like this."

In addition to Borland's health concerns, the letter laid out his "lofty" goals for what turned out to be his first and last season. "He made it clear that he was going to go all-out, and give it everything he had, for one more season, and I think he did that," said Jeff Borland, a walk-on linebacker and scout-team player at Miami of Ohio in the 1970s.

Despite his growing misgivings, Chris Borland had a breakout season. He was a bright spot on an otherwise disappointing 49ers team. Borland had 107 tackles and a sack in 14 games, eight of them starts, and was constantly around the ball; it sometimes seemed like he made every 49ers tackle.

Borland said he was able to keep his health concerns and his aggressive play separate.

"I think I did a good job of compartmentalizing my life," he said. "It's crazy to say it, but even if football was this dangerous thing, it was a place where I could focus all my energy. I'm sure it's not the healthiest thing to direct stress from football into football, but that's basically what I did."

In December, he said, he began reading "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth," a best-selling book about the NFL's efforts to suppress two decades of scientific evidence connecting football and brain damage; the book was written by the authors of this article. He also asked his parents to read it.

Borland said he finished the book while sitting out the final two games of the season because of an ankle injury.

"I kept it secret," he said. "You can't be in the locker room reading 'League of Denial.'"

Borland said he did further research and was most affected by the stories about players like Webster, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling. Duerson, a former Bears defensive back, and Easterling, a former Falcons safety, shot themselves to death and were later diagnosed with CTE. Borland said he was most struck that Duerson initially had been a denier of the link between football and brain damage, only to turn around and shoot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for science.

"When people in your chosen profession shoot themselves in the chest, it causes you to be taken aback," Borland said. "Again, you may be able to play for a long time and be healthy, but it caused me to pause and think."

Borland said the decision was actually simple as he weighed the potential repercussions of a long career.

"To me it's like jumping into the water and you can't see how deep it is," he said. "I don't know if I'm going to go through and be unscathed or if I'll cut my foot or if I'll land facefirst into a rock. I don't know, and correlation isn't causation, so these cases I've read and researched into, they may not be pertinent to me at all, or they might. To me, that risk isn't worth it, and I've got enough going on in my life and other interests that I want to pursue."

When the season ended, he reached out to brain-injury specialists and former players to get their views. They included Dr. Robert Stern, the director of clinical research for Boston University's Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy; and Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute who has been heavily involved in CTE research.

Borland did not turn to the NFL for information, he said, because he believes the league "isn't incentivized to provide it. I don't think they did a bad job, but they certainly weren't at the forefront of informing guys about the things that could happen."

He added, "It is a business, so I don't think a soda company doesn't tell you a drink will make you fat, they tell you it tastes good. I don't think they're completely irresponsible. They do address the issue. I think it could be done more candidly."

Jeff Miller, the NFL's vice president of health and safety policy, issued a statement Tuesday through Pro Football Talk, saying football has "never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players. ... We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority."

When he notified the 49ers of his decision on Friday, Borland said the team asked him whether it would make a difference if he spoke with another specialist. He declined to do so. He called the 49ers on Monday night, telling them he had spoken to reporters.

"At the end of the day, it's about a 24-year-old guy doing what's best for him," he said. "I welcome disagreement. I understand it. But I feel strongly about this decision. And I think those close to me and those that have done their research, even if they don't agree with it, they understand why."

Bailes, in an interview Tuesday, said he thinks Borland's decision could represent a "new norm" in how players view their career goals. "It can make players that are average and players who are great reconsider the importance of their brain health as they get older," Bailes said. "I think that's the significance."

Borland said the money he would be walking away from was never an issue.

"My only potential regret would be playing too long," he said. "You start to cloud your thinking when you compromise health for financial reasons."

Borland said he understood that because he comes from a stable family and has a college degree, the decision might be easier for him than others.

"I've got the luxury of choice just with the way I've been raised and the good fortune of growing up in a middle-class family and having my college degree. I've got a bachelor's degree in history, so employers aren't exactly drooling over my credentials, but no, I think there's guys who don't have that choice, but that's not a reason to shirk the issue or avoid addressing things."

That sentiment played out Tuesday publicly for some players; former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett tweeted, "Lots of guys don't have a backup plan. They get shuffled thru the college ranks and only see football as an option to succeed. They often tolerate the trauma for the paycheck. ... No one is right or wrong. It all comes down to quality of life for each individual."

Borland said that after reaching his decision, the only remaining issue was how and when to tell the team. He said he first wanted to personally inform his family and friends. He tried to tell the 49ers during the free-agency period and before the draft so they would have time to adjust.

"I hate to let people down, but I feel like it's more important to do what's right for me and my family long-term," he said. "The decision operated completely separate from the organization."

Borland, who is planning to return to school, said he likely will miss football "every day. There's really nothing like it. You can argue that it's not good for you, but you get a euphoric high playing it at the professional level. It's really incredible, and I love it. I'll miss it. But I'm ready to accomplish more in a different field."

Asked whether he still might change his mind, Borland laughed.

"No," he said. "I feel like I've put a lot into this decision, and in my heart and in my head, it feels right. It is right. I don't think there's any going back. I know it seems like a really brief career. But I think 10 years for me, counting high school, college and one year in the pros, is a full football life."

Producer Justine Gubar of ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit contributed to this report.

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